A Blind Eye?

Published: June 7, 2017

By Jim Lichtman
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Graham Spanier, the former president of Penn State University, was found guilty last March of endangering the welfare of a child in the Jerry Sandusky sex assault case.

In March, I wrote about my time at Penn State where I spoke on ethics to a variety of students, administrators, alumni and… as it turned out, then-President Spanier.

Spanier and I sat at a lunch table before the talk and I listened as he explained how honor and integrity were vital to the university’s ethical culture.

“This was 2005,” I wrote last March, “three years after assistant coach Mike McQueray reported an alleged sexual assault on a young boy by football coach Jerry Sandusky.

“Did Spanier know? Although he was fired by the University’s Board along with Coach Joe Paterno, we may never know the full story.”

Now, we know.

As reported by CNN (June 2), Spanier “…and two other former administrators were sentenced to jail terms Friday for failing to report a 2001 allegation that assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was molesting young boys.”

“For three years,” I wrote, “the Sandusky scandal was a conspiracy of silence. Such was the culture surrounding Penn State. For me, it’s also an example of a clear difference between appearance and reality.

“In my time spent at the university, there was not a whisper of knowledge or suspicion – from students, administrators or teachers.  So, those who knew kept the secret – a secret that has since destroyed the reputation of a major university not to mention the standing of a respected football coach who, to his credit, did many good things for his student-athletes. Unfortunately, it only takes one act to erase those good works in the minds of many.”

Last Friday, (June 2), The New York Times writes, “A judge sentenced three former Pennsylvania State University officials including [Spanier], to short jail terms followed by home confinement for their roles in the child molestation scandal…

“The officials were charged for failing to go to law enforcement after being told in 2001 that a former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, had been seen molesting a boy in a locker room shower. The officials denied that they were told at the time that the episode in the shower was overtly sexual.

“Mr. Sandusky went on to assault several other minors, and in 2012, he was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse. …

“In handing down the sentence… Judge John Boccabella said, “…this is a fall from grace that is both unfortunate and well deserved.” The defendants are “good people who made a terrible mistake. Why no one made a phone call to police is beyond me.”

Their decision was not beyond some, as Deputy State Attorney General Laura Ditka made clear. They put their reputations and that of the school’s ahead of doing the right thing. “That is inexcusable,” Ditka said.

“ ‘The single most important thing I can say is that I’m sorry,’ [Spanier] told the court on Friday. ‘I deeply regret that I did not intervene far more carefully.’

“Mr. Spanier’s lawyers,” The Times added, “had argued that he should not get jail time, in part because of health problems. Prosecutors said he should receive a penalty in the upper part of the allowable range for the conviction, which carries a maximum sentence of one year.

“Judge Boccabella sentenced Mr. Spanier to four to 12 months’ confinement, with at least two months of that in jail followed by home confinement, and a $7,500 fine. He sentenced [Tim] Curley to seven to 23 months, with at least three months in jail, and a $5,000 fine; and [Gary] Schultz to six to 23 months, with at least two months in jail, and a $5,000 fine. In addition, he imposed two years’ probation on all three men.

“ ‘It sickens me,” Schultz said, ‘to think that I might have played a part in children’s suffering.’ ”

Might have played a part”?

Anyone, especially those officials entrusted with the welfare of students at a school, should pay a much higher price for turning a blind eye.

Correction: This is a clear case of willful blindness in order to protect self-interest.

According to ethicist Michael Josephson, the four enemies of integrity are:

Self-Interest – Things we want.

Self-Protection – Things we don’t want.

Self-Deception – It’s not an ethical issue.

And Self-Righteousness – The end justifies the means.

Clearly, Spanier, Curley and Schultz are guilty of at least three out of the four: they wanted to protect their own reputations as well as that of the university; they didn’t want to face alumni with such wrongdoing regarding a much vaunted and valuable football team, along with a probable loss of contributions; and they rationalized that the end justifies the means in order to protect their own jobs, reputations, as well as the standing of Penn State.

“There is a danger,” Josephson writes, “that conscientious people who want to do their jobs well will cease to reflect on the moral justifications for the methods they use to achieve the results they seek. There is a tendency to compartmentalize ethics into private and occupational domains so as to justify fundamentally decent people doing thing in their jobs that they know to be wrong in other contexts.”

Let me be clear: This is not about making a mistake. We all make mistakes. This is about how we handle those mistakes and take corrective action.

If Spanier, Curley and Schultz had spoken sooner, how many other young boys might have been spared Sandusky’s abuse?


  1. Well-done Jim, and the personal connection at the luncheon with the President three years AFTER the original incident adds great credence. In ALL these cases, the TIME line is so critical. Simply put, the SOONER you get out the truth, the more likely a favorable result. Somewhere in there is a length of time beyond which the cover-up almost HAS to take place to keep things in order…which only compounds the misery down the line. A lesson learned OVER and OVER again, probably by all of us.

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